When the worst thing that could ever
happen to you had already happened, nothing that came after really
mattered. The resultant state of apathy was almost pleasant,
as long as she didn’t allow herself to think about it—any of
She was Genevieve Dumont, a
singer, a star. Her latest sold-out performance at one of
Paris’s great theaters had ended in a five-minute standing ovation
less than an hour before. She was acclaimed, admired, celebrated
wherever she went. The Nazis loved her.
She was not quite twenty-five years
old. Beautiful when, like now, she was dolled up in all her
after-show finery. Not in want, not unhappy.
In this time of fear and mass
starvation, of worldwide deaths on a scale never seen before in the
whole course of human history, that made her lucky. She knew it.
Whom she had been before, what had
almost destroyed her—that life belonged to someone else. Most of
the time, she didn’t even remember it herself.
She refused to remember it.
A siren screamed to life just meters
behind the car she was traveling in. Startled, she sat upright in the
back seat, heart lurching as she looked around.
Do they know? Are they after us?
A small knot of fans had been waiting
outside the stage door as she’d left. One of them had thrust a
program at her, requesting an autograph for Francoise. She’d
signed—May your heart always sing, Genevieve Dumont—as
previously instructed. What it meant she didn’t know. What she did
know was that it meant something: it was a prearranged
encounter, and the coded message she’d scribbled down was intended
for the Resistance.
And now, mere minutes later, here were
the Milice, the despised French police who had long since thrown in
their lot with the Nazis, on their tail.
Even as icy jets of fear spurted
through her, a pair of police cars followed by a military truck flew
by. Running without lights, they appeared as no more than hulking
black shapes whose passage rattled the big Citroën that up until
then had been alone on the road. A split second later, her driver—his
name was Otto Cordier; he worked for Max, her manager—slammed on
the brakes. The car jerked to a stop.
“Sacre bleu!” Flying
forward, she barely stopped herself from smacking into the back of
the front seat by throwing her arms out in front of her. “What’s
“A raid, I think.” Peering out
through the windshield, Otto clutched the steering wheel with both
hands. He was an old man, short and wiry with white hair. She could
read tension in every line of his body. In front of the car, washed
by the pale moonlight that painted the scene in ghostly shades of
gray, the cavalcade that had passed them was now blocking the road. A
screech of brakes and the throwing of a shadow across the nearest
building had her casting a quick look over her shoulder. Another
military truck shuddered to a halt, filling the road behind them,
stopping it up like a cork in a bottle. Men—German soldiers along
with officers of the Milice—spilled out of the stopped vehicles.
The ones behind swarmed past the Citroën, and all rushed toward what
Genevieve tentatively identified as an apartment building. Six
stories tall, it squatted, dark and silent, in its own walled
“Oh, no,” she said. Her fear for
herself and Otto subsided, but sympathy for the targets of the raid
made her chest feel tight. People who were taken away by the Nazis in
the middle of the night seldom came back.
The officers banged on the front door.
“Open up! Police!”
It was just after 10:00 p.m. Until the
siren had ripped it apart, the silence blanketing the city had been
close to absolute. Thanks to the strictly enforced blackout, the
streets were as dark and mysterious as the nearby Seine. It had
rained earlier in the day, and before the siren the big Citroën had
been the noisiest thing around, splashing through puddles as they
headed back to the Ritz, where she was staying for the duration of
her Paris run.
“If they keep arresting people, soon
there will be no one left.” Genevieve’s gaze locked on a
contingent of soldiers spreading out around the building, apparently
looking for another way in—or for exits they could block. One
rattled a gate of tall iron spikes that led into the brick-walled
garden. It didn’t open, and he moved on, disappearing around the
side of the building. She was able to follow the soldiers’
movements by the torches they carried. Fitted with slotted covers
intended to direct their light downward so as to make them invisible
to the Allied air-raid pilots whose increasingly frequent forays over
Paris aroused both joy and dread in the city’s war-weary citizens,
the torches’ bobbing looked like the erratic flitting of fireflies
in the dark.
“They’re afraid, and that makes
them all the more dangerous.” Otto rolled down his window a crack,
the better to hear what was happening as they followed the soldiers’
movements. The earthy scent of the rain mixed with the faint smell of
cigarette smoke, which, thanks to Max’s never-ending Gauloises,
was a permanent feature of the car. The yellow card that was the pass
they needed to be on the streets after curfew, prominently displayed
on the windshield, blocked her view of the far side of the building,
but she thought soldiers were running that way, too. “They know the
Allies are coming. The bombings of the Luftwaffe installations right
here in France, the Allied victories on the eastern front—they’re
being backed into a corner. They’ll do whatever they must to
“Open the door, or we will break it
The policeman hammered on the door with
his nightstick. The staccato beat echoed through the night. Genevieve
shivered, imagining the terror of the people inside.
Thin lines of light appeared in the
cracks around some of the thick curtains covering the windows up and
down the building as, at a guess, tenants dared to peek out. A
woman, old and stooped—there was enough light in the hall behind
her to allow Genevieve to see that much—opened the front door.
“Out of the way!”
She was shoved roughly back inside the
building as the police and the soldiers stormed in. Her frightened
cry changed to a shrill scream that was quickly cut off.
Genevieve’s mouth went dry. She
clasped her suddenly cold hands in her lap.
There’s nothing to be done. It
was the mantra of her life.
“Can we drive on?” She had learned
in a hard school that there was no point in agonizing over what
couldn’t be cured. To stay and watch what she knew was coming—the
arrest of partisans, who would face immediate execution upon arrival
at wherever they would be taken, or, perhaps and arguably worse,
civilians, in some combination of women, children, old people,
clutching what few belongings they’d managed to grab, marched at
gunpoint out of the building and loaded into the trucks for
deportation—would tear at her heart for days without helping them
“We’re blocked in.” Otto looked
around at her. She didn’t know what he saw in her face, but
whatever it was made him grimace and reach for the door handle. “I’ll
go see if I can get one of them to move.”
When he exited the car, she let her
head drop back to rest against the rolled top of the Citroën’s
leather seat, stared at the ceiling and tried not to think about what
might be happening to the people in the building. Taking deep
breaths, she did her best to block out the muffled shouts and thuds
that reached her ears and focused on the physical, which, as a
performer, she had experience doing. She was so tired she was limp
with it. Her temples throbbed. Her legs ached. Her feet hurt. Her
throat—that golden throat that had allowed her to survive—felt
tight. Deliberately she relaxed her muscles and tugged the scarf
tucked into the neckline of her coat higher to warm herself.
A flash of light in the darkness caught
her eye. Her head turned as she sought the source. Looking through
the iron bars of the garden gate, she discovered a side door in the
building that was slowly, stealthily opening.
“Is anyone else in there? Come out or
I’ll shoot.” The volume of the soldiers’ shouts increased
exponentially with this new gap in the walls. That guttural threat
rang out above others less distinct, and she gathered from what she
heard that they were searching the building.
The side door opened wider. Light from
inside spilled past a figure slipping out: a girl, tall and thin with
dark curly hair, wearing what appeared to be an unbuttoned coat
thrown on over nightclothes. In her arms she carried a small child
with the same dark, curly hair.
The light went out. The door had
closed. Genevieve discovered that she was sitting with her nose all
but pressed against the window as she tried to find the girl in the
darkness. It took her a second, but then she spotted the now shadowy
figure as it fled through the garden toward the gate, trying to
They’ll shoot her if they catch
her. The child, too.
The Germans had no mercy for those for
whom they came.
The girl reached the gate, paused. A
pale hand grabbed a bar. From the metallic rattle that reached her
ears, Genevieve thought she must be shoving at the gate, shaking it.
She assumed it was locked. In any event, it didn’t open. Then that
same hand reached through the bars, along with a too-thin arm,
stretching and straining.
Toward what? It was too dark to tell.
With the Citroën stopped in the middle
of the narrow street and the garden set back only a meter or so from
the front facade of the building, the girl was close enough so that
Genevieve could read the desperation in her body language, see the
way she kept looking back at the now closed door. The child, who
appeared to be around ten months old, seemed to be asleep. The small
curly head rested trustingly on the girl’s shoulder.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to
leave the car. Genevieve just did it, then realized the risk she was
taking when her pumps clickety-clacked on the cobblestones. The sound
seemed to tear through the night and sent a lightning bolt of panic
Get back in the car. Her sense
of self-preservation screamed it at her, but she didn’t. Shivering
at the latent menace of the big military trucks looming so close on
either side of the Citroën, the police car parked askew in the
street, the light spilling from the still open front door and the
sounds of the raid going on inside the building, she kept going,
taking care to be quiet now as she darted toward the trapped girl.
You’re putting yourself in danger.
You’re putting Otto, Max, everyone in danger. The whole network—
Heart thudding, she reached the gate.
Even as she and the girl locked eyes through it, the girl jerked her
arm back inside and drew herself up.
The sweet scent of flowers from the
garden felt obscene in contrast with the fear and despair she sensed
in the girl.
“It’s all right. I’m here to
help,” Genevieve whispered. She grasped the gate, pulling, pushing
as she spoke. The iron bars were solid and cold and slippery with the
moisture that still hung in the air. The gate didn’t budge for her,
either. The clanking sound it made as she joggled it against its
moorings made her break out in a cold sweat. Darkness enfolded her,
but it was leavened by moonlight and she didn’t trust it to keep
her safe. After all, she’d seen the girl from the car. All it would
take was one sharp-eyed soldier, one policeman to come around a
corner, or step out of the building and look her way—and she could
be seen, too. Caught. Helping a fugitive escape.
The consequences would be dire.
Imprisonment, deportation, even death.
Her pulse raced.
She thought of Max, what he would say.
On the other side of the gate,
moonlight touched on wide dark eyes set in a face so thin the bones
seemed about to push through the skin. The girl appeared to be about
her own age, and she thought she must be the child’s mother. The
sleeping child—Genevieve couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a
boy—was wearing footed pajamas.
Her heart turned over.
“Oh, thank God. Thank you.”
Whispering, too, the girl reached through the bars to touch
Genevieve’s arm in gratitude. “There’s a key. In the
fountainhead. In the mouth. It unlocks the gate.” She cast another
of those lightning glances over her shoulder. Shifting from foot to
foot, she could hardly stand still in her agitation. Fear rolled off
her in waves. “Hurry. Please.”
Genevieve looked in the direction the
girl had been reaching, saw the oval stone of the fountainhead set
into the brick near the gate, saw the carved lion’s head in its
center with its open mouth from which, presumably, water was meant to
pour out. Reaching inside, she probed the cavity, ran her fingers
over the worn-smooth stone, then did it again.
“There’s no key,” she said. “It’s
“It has to be. It has to be!” The
girl’s voice rose, trembled. The child’s head moved. The girl
made a soothing sound, rocked back and forth, patted the small back,
and the child settled down again with a sigh. Watching, a pit yawned
in Genevieve’s stomach. Glancing hastily down, she crouched to
check the ground beneath the fountainhead, in case the key might have
fallen out. It was too dark; she couldn’t see. She ran her hand
over the cobblestones. Nothing.
“It’s not—” she began, standing
up, only to break off with a swiftly indrawn breath as the door
through which the girl had exited flew open. This time, in the
rectangle of light, a soldier stood.
“My God.” The girl’s whisper as
she turned her head to look was scarcely louder than a breath, but it
was so loaded with terror that it made the hair stand up on the back
of Genevieve’s neck. “What do I do?”
“Who is out there?” the soldier
roared. Pistol ready in his hand, he pointed his torch toward the
garden. The light played over a tattered cluster of pink peonies,
over overgrown green shrubs, over red tulips thrusting their heads
through weeds, as it came their way. “Don’t think to hide from
“Take the baby. Please.” Voice
hoarse with dread, the girl thrust the child toward her. Genevieve
felt a flutter of panic: if this girl only knew, she would be the
last person she would ever trust with her child. But there was no one
else, and thus no choice to be made. As a little leg and arm came
through the gate, Genevieve reached out to help, taking part and then
all of the baby’s weight as between them she and the girl
maneuvered the little one through the bars. As their hands touched,
she could feel the cold clamminess of the girl’s skin, feel her
trembling. With the child no longer clutched in her arms, the dark
shape of a six-pointed yellow star on her coat became visible. The
true horror of what was happening struck Genevieve like a blow.
The girl whispered, “Her name’s
Anna. Anna Katz. Leave word of where I’m to come for her in the
The light flashed toward them.
“You there, by the gate,” the
With a gasp, the girl whirled away.
“Halt! Stay where you are!”
Heart in her throat, blood turning to
ice, Genevieve whirled away, too, in the opposite direction. Cloaked
by night, she ran as lightly as she could for the car, careful to
keep her heels from striking the cobblestones, holding the child
close to her chest, one hand splayed against short, silky curls. The
soft baby smell, the feel of the firm little body against her,
triggered such an explosion of emotion that she went briefly
light-headed. The panicky flutter in her stomach solidified into a
knot—and then the child’s wriggling and soft sounds of discontent
brought the present sharply back into focus.
If she cried…
Terror tasted sharp and bitter in
“Shh. Shh, Anna,” she crooned
“I said halt!” The soldier’s
roar came as Genevieve reached the car, grabbed the door handle,
wrenched the door open—
Bang. The bark of a pistol.
A woman’s piercing cry. The girl’s
No. Genevieve screamed it, but
only in her mind. The guilt of running away, of leaving the girl
behind, crashed into her like a speeding car.
Blowing his whistle furiously, the
soldier ran down the steps. More soldiers burst through the door,
following the first one down the steps and out of sight.
Had the girl been shot? Was she dead?
My God, my God. Genevieve’s
heart slammed in her chest.
She threw herself and the child into
the back seat and—softly, carefully—closed the door. Because she
didn’t dare do anything else.
The baby started to cry.
Staring out the window in petrified
expectation of seeing the soldiers come charging after her at any
second, she found herself panting with fear even as she did her best
to quiet the now wailing child.
Could anyone hear? Did the soldiers
know the girl had been carrying a baby?
If she was caught with the child…
What else could I have done?
Max would say she should have stayed
out of it, stayed in the car. That the common good was more important
than the plight of any single individual.
Even a terrified girl. Even a baby.
“It’s all right, Anna. I’ve got
you safe. Shh.” Settling back in the seat to position the child
more comfortably in her arms, she murmured and patted and rocked.
Instinctive actions, long forgotten, reemerged in this moment of
Through the gate she could see the
soldiers clustering around something on the ground. The girl, she had
little doubt, although the darkness and the garden’s riotous
blooms blocked her view. With Anna, quiet now, sprawled against her
chest, a delayed reaction set in and she started to shake.
Otto got back into the car.
“They’re going to be moving the
truck in front as soon as it’s loaded up.” His voice was gritty
with emotion. Anger? Bitterness? “Someone tipped them off that
Jews were hiding in the building, and they’re arresting everybody.
Otto broke off as the child made a
“Shh.” Genevieve patted, rocked.
His face a study in incredulity, Otto
leaned around in the seat to look. “Holy hell, is that a baby?”
“Her mother was trapped in the
garden. She couldn’t get out.”
Otto shot an alarmed look at the
building, where soldiers now marched a line of people, young and old,
including a couple of small children clutching adults’ hands, out
the front door.
“My God,” he said, sounding
appalled. “We’ve got to get—”
Appearing out of seemingly nowhere, a
soldier rapped on the driver’s window. With his knuckles, hard.
Oh, no. Please no.
Genevieve’s heart pounded. Her
stomach dropped like a rock as she stared at the shadowy figure on
the other side of the glass.
We’re going to be arrested. Or
Whipping the scarf out of her neckline,
she draped the brightly printed square across her shoulder and over
Otto cranked the window down.
“Papers,” the soldier barked.
Fear formed a hard knot under
Genevieve’s breastbone. Despite the night’s chilly temperature,
she could feel sweat popping out on her forehead and upper lip. On
penalty of arrest, everyone in Occupied France, from the oldest to
the youngest, was required to have identity documents readily
available at all times. Hers were in her handbag, beside her on the
But Anna had none.
Otto passed his cards to the soldier,
who turned his torch on them.
As she picked up her handbag, Genevieve
felt Anna stir.
Please, God, don’t let her cry.
“Here.” Quickly she thrust her
handbag over the top of the seat to Otto. Anna was squirming now.
Genevieve had to grab and secure the scarf from underneath to make
sure the baby’s movements didn’t knock it askew.
If the soldier saw her…
Anna whimpered. Muffled by the scarf,
the sound wasn’t loud, but its effect on Genevieve was electric.
She caught her breath as her heart shot into her throat—and reacted
instinctively, as, once upon a time, it had been second nature to do.
She slid the tip of her little finger
between Anna’s lips.
The baby responded as babies typically
did: she latched on and sucked.
Genevieve felt the world start to slide
out of focus. The familiarity of it, the bittersweet memories it
evoked, made her dizzy. She had to force herself to stay in the
present, to concentrate on this child and this moment
to the exclusion of all else.
Otto had handed her identity cards
over. The soldier examined them with his torch, then bent closer to
the window and looked into the back seat.
She almost expired on the spot.
“Mademoiselle Dumont. It is a
pleasure. I have enjoyed your singing very much.”
Anna’s hungry little mouth tugged
vigorously at her finger.
“Thank you,” Genevieve said, and
The soldier smiled back. Then he
straightened, handed the papers back and, with a thump on the roof,
stepped away from the car. Otto cranked the window up.
The tension inside the car was so thick
she could almost physically feel the weight of it.
“Let them through,” the soldier
called to someone near the first truck. Now loaded with the
unfortunate new prisoners, it was just starting to pull out.
With a wave for the soldier, Otto
followed, although far too slowly for Genevieve’s peace of mind. As
the car crawled after the truck, she cast a last, quick glance at the
garden: she could see nothing, not even soldiers.
Was the girl—Anna’s mother—still
there on the ground? Or had she already been taken away?
Was she dead?
Genevieve felt sick to her stomach. But
once again, there was nothing to be done.
Acutely aware of the truck’s large
side and rear mirrors and what might be able to be seen through them,
Genevieve managed to stay upright and keep the baby hidden until the
Citroën turned a corner and went its own way.
Then, feeling as though her bones had
turned to jelly, she slumped against the door.
Anna gave up on the finger and started
to cry, shrill, distressed wails that filled the car. With what felt
like the last bit of her strength, Genevieve pushed the scarf away
and gathered her up and rocked and patted and crooned to her. Just
like she had long ago done with—
Do not think about it.
“Shh, Anna. Shh.”
“That was almost a disaster.”
Otto’s voice, tight with reaction, was nonetheless soft for fear
of disturbing the quieting child. “What do we do now? You can’t
take a baby back to the hotel. Think questions won’t be asked? What
do you bet that soldier won’t talk about having met Genevieve
Dumont? All it takes is one person to make the connection between the
raid and you showing up with a baby and it will ruin us all. It will
“I know.” Genevieve was limp. “Find
Max. He’ll know what to do.”
Black Swan of Paris by
Karen Robards, Copyright © 2020 by Karen Robards. Published by MIRA